Secularism and Capitalism vs. Islam: Western Ways Will Lead to a Better Life

By Machan, Tibor R. | Free Inquiry, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Secularism and Capitalism vs. Islam: Western Ways Will Lead to a Better Life


Machan, Tibor R., Free Inquiry


Since shortly after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush has been consistent in claiming that not Islam per se that hates Americans and targets us for destruction, but rather some renegade versions of that faith. In time it became an automatic refrain on the Right that Islam is peaceful and gentle, except for some of the crazier versions of it.

Yet, as subsequent work has shown--see, especially, Robert Spencer's Islam Unveiled (Encounter, 2002) and Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003)--much of what the Qur'an says supports the idea that it is Islam as such, not its fundamentalist or extremist varieties, that finds grave fault with the United States and much of the West.

This view sees Islam as a fiercely otherworldly theology, one that sees no difference between what is due to God and what is due to Caesar. State and church are ideally the same, as they have been in Iran since the Shah was ousted and the ayatollahs seized the reins of government. Elsewhere, too, the secularization of countries with sizable Muslim populations has been arrested--even Turkey, the most secular majority-Muslim nation, hasn't quite managed to rid itself of the threat of fundamentalism; moderate Egypt continues to have difficulty managing the problems fundamentalism engenders.

Of course, there are competing versions of Islam, each with its distinctive nuances. But there is also a core difference between Islam and the West: Islamism takes the supernatural world far more seriously, both in theory and practice, than do most prominent contemporary Christian institutions. One important consequence of the Islamic position is that the state is seen as a direct instrument for regimenting virtue within its realm. Virtuous behavior is the goal; in sharp contrast to modern Christianity, Islam has no commitment to the idea that the faithful must voluntarily choose to embrace moral virtues or, indeed, the faith itself.

This latter element of Christianity is arguably responsible for the coexistence between Western secular-liberal public philosophies and the West's various theological systems. Not that things have always been that way; the truth is quite the contrary. Although most Roman Catholics today insist that the Holy Inquisition was an aberration, it is clear that acceptance and compliance with the doctrines of the Catholic faith were at one time thought to be achievable via coercion. (Although, even then the idea was to persuade people to accept the faith--via coerced confession, albeit with methods that left little room fax genuine free choice.) Today, most Western faiths have made some kind of peace with the liberal political tradition, one that developed, after all--say, in the writings of John Locke--in large measure by thinking through the relationship between state and church and tolerance in general.

At bottom, however, Islam and Christianity do in fact share their mutual devotion to the supernatural realm, spiritualism, the afterlife, and everlasting salvation. They both cherish the idea that life on Earth is but a stepping stone to a much richer kind of life, one completely unattached to material reality. "Materialism" is, after all, held contemptible under both schools of theology, though Christianity manages some kind of mishmash to reconcile its kind of spiritualism and materialism. (Islam, of course, has managed to achieve a similar reconciliation in the practical lives of many Muslims--no one can argue in good faith that all upper-class Saudi Muslims are living primarily, let alone exclusively, spiritual lives! …

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